Kevin Smiley is a full-time MBA student at the Telfer School of Management and a strong believer in social entrepreneurship. This year, he founded SuraiTea Inc., a social enterprise tea shop which employs mostly Syrian refugees in order to provide them with job opportunities in Canada, all while also raising money for settlement efforts.

Being in the Right Place at the Right Time

Having previously studied in environmental engineering at Queen's University and worked in renewable power and sustainable real estate development, and being actively engaged with the Professional Engineers Ontario / Ontario Society of Professional Engineers' Engineering Innovation Ecosystem, Kevin was inspired to create a sustainable business model which would benefit all parties involved.

In early February 2016, Stephen Daze, Telfer’s Dom Herrick Entrepreneur in Residence, informed Kevin about uOttawa’s Start-Up Weekend which carried the theme of refugee resettling. It was then that he shifted his focus to creating a business that would help with the Syrian resettling effort in Canada. “After seeing and reading many stories about the enormous strain on limited resources which not-for-profit organizations were experiencing, I began to think that there may be something that I could do to help,” he says.

The Project

SuraiTea Inc. is a corporation that uses the power of the markets to create positive change for the resettlement  of  Syrian refugees in Canada. It hopes to create high value employment for refugees and establish a sustainable source of corporate donations to the organizations that are active in the refugee resettling effort in Canada. SuraiTea Inc. is a social enterprise and a ‘Pending B Corp’ (start‐up) with B Lab Canada.

Why tea? Jasmine is the unofficial national flower of Syria and Damascus, the capital city of Syria, is also known as ‘The City of Jasmine’.

Kevin contacted a wholesale tea supplier in Toronto, which uses 100% USDA and Canada Organic certified organic ingredients and Ecocert certified facilities. He then reached out to World Skills Employment Centre, an Ottawa organization that finds jobs for recently-arrived immigrants and refugees and then put the two together. So far, SuraiTea Inc. has 20 Syrian refugees working on the project. “The more our customers support us by signing on to our online store and purchasing our teas, the more positive social change for refugees we can create,” he says.

Sustainability and Business

Kevin’s long term goal for SuraiTea Inc. is to eventually grow the corporation and add additional lines of teas from other areas of the world which have humanitarian issues, such as East-Africa, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. “The areas which produce some of the best teas, also unfortunately have some of the worst problems,” he says, “Syria has over 20 million refugees currently but there are actually over 55 million total refugees in the world so it’s not just a Syrian problem.”  

Kevin says that the Telfer MBA program  has helped him gain the knowledge needed in order to create his business from the ground up. “Telfer has truly been a transformational experience for me,” he says, “Telfer is where I learned about B Corps, where I learned that the truly successful business are the ones that solve problems, where I learned about intrinsic motivation and where the entrepreneurial fire was lit inside me.”

CBC News has covered SuraiTea Inc.’s story. Read the news article, or watch the TV clip (starts at 43:30 minutes).